Combinatorics at Strathclyde

Two years ago, we enjoyed a successful British Combinatorial Conference at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. For me it was memorable for several reasons: the appearance of my book “Notes on Counting”, my fall to the floor during the ceilidh, the booksale, and (more seriously) some fine lectures including Graham Farr’s lecture commemorating Bill Tutte’s centenary.

Now the Combinatorics group at Strathclyde (David Bevan, Sergey Kitaev and Einar Steingrímsson) is under threat.

I have received two documents; one on reshaping the Department of Computer and Information Sciences, signed by the Head of Department; and a response from the three members of the Combinatorics group.

The first document is pretty much what you might expect, with lots of fine words about “emerging vision”, “imperative”, “resources … aligned with opportunities for future growth”. Mathematics finds no place in this emerging vision.
I quote:

Combinatorics is not considered to be of fundamental importance to UG-teaching. More broadly speaking, discrete mathematics is of fundamental importance but this can be covered by many staff (eg MSP, Data Analytics and Cybersecurity staff) in the Department.

And more along the same lines. In particular, the group is castigated for not getting “grants around a million pounds or more”. [How many mathematicians anywhere hold such grants?]

The response is a much better written and argued document. (Mathematicians, after all, have to be clear – it is an important part of the job – so I am not at all surprised by this.)

They point out that the three-member group is one of the very strongest research groups in the department, having produced 35% of the department’s four-star papers in the current REF and earning REF and grant funding of close to a million pounds in the last four years. Moreover, discrete mathematics underpins computer science, and the group (being the departments only experts in the area) have developed courses for this. Members of the group have had important administrative roles in the department, having greatly improved systems for interacting with PhD students (criticised in an earlier report).

Moreover, combinatorics, or discrete mathematics (the terms are closer in meaning than the Head of Department seems to think, and if there is a difference, the group’s expertise is broader than “just combinatorics”) is perhaps the most applicable part of mathematics in the information age.

Last year, the Bond report, titled “The era of mathematics”, highlighted the importance of knowledge exchange in mathematics, argued (with many examples) that all parts of mathematics can have application, and pushed for a big increase in funding for mathematics, especially the training of PhD students and postdocs. The Council for the Mathematical Sciences has set up two committees to push forward with this, one to prioritise the recommendations in the Bond Report, and the other to convince policymakers of their importance. I would have thought that Strathclyde would be well-placed to benefit from this, if it is successful. (But not of course under the current reshaping plan.)

There have, sad to say, been several instances in Britain of universities closing down mathematics or getting rid of mathematicians in other ways. One incident that sticks in my mind, in a case where I was involved, occurred when the head of another department, at the start of an interview with the committee, said “I couldn’t hold up my head to be in a University with no mathematics department”. In another case, mathematics was closed down so that computer science could expand; this computer science department now finds that its main job consists of teaching arts students how to switch on the computer. (I exaggerate, but not too much.)

It seems to me that the Strathclyde proposal is a very short-sighted move, and unlikely to be in the department’s long-term interest. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence that collaboration between mathematicians (either a department of them, or a group in a computer science department) and informaticians can be of enormous benefit to both.

If you feel as I do, you may wish to know that the head of Computer and Information Sciences at Strathclyde is Professor Neil Ghani. I am sure you can find his address; you can probably even guess it. You may also wish to contact higher authorities in the University. These are our friends and colleagues; please help if you can.

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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20 Responses to Combinatorics at Strathclyde

  1. Jon Awbrey says:

    Ignorance in high places appears to be everywhere these days.
    I wish it were not so pandemic.

    • Abhishek Ghosh says:

      Even if the University heads are well aware of the importance of fundamental subjects, they can do little against the wishes of their higher ups who in turn want to be seen as “cool and trendy”. They want to be seen as “being ahead of the curve”. Discrete Mathematics and Combinatorics are not buzzwords. AI, ML, Data Science : These are the hot buzzwords now. Rename the group to one of these high falutin’ things, the funds will see start raining.

  2. Pingback: The fate of combinatorics at Strathclyde | Gowers's Weblog

  3. If you are possibly interested in signing a petition in support of the Combinatorics group at Strathclyde, please look at https://britishcombinatorial.wordpress.com/2019/06/20/combinatorics-at-strathclyde-2/ where there is the text of a petition and instructions on what to do.

  4. Abhishek Ghosh says:

    Here’s an idea : Rename the group to a buzzword.

    Artificially Intelligent Machines Group

    Machine Intelligence Group

    Machine Learning Intelligence Group

    Artificial Data Intelligence Group

    And the funds will pour in as a flood.

    Brands sell, use them.

  5. Emanuele says:

    From Google it seems two of the members of the group are lecturers and one is professor, but I am not sure what that means in the UK. Can you comment on this and how closing the group would be compatible with their contracts? Is this a case of someone getting possibly fired after getting tenure?

    • Unfortunately, academics in the UK no longer have tenure written into their contracts: this was abolished on new contracts about thirty years ago. So there is no legal bar to management doing this. Indeed, several people who have signed the petition have been victims of similar practices elsewhere.
      Very roughly, lecturer = assistant professor; senior lecturer or reader = associate professor, professor = full professor.

  6. Is Neil Ghani actually behind this decision or merely in a place where it makes sense to direct criticism at him?

    I’m finding it a bit weird that a homotopy type theorist could be under the illusion that Data Analytics or Cybersecurity staff could in any way cover the work done by combinatorialists (even the teaching parts of it). Apart from having to do with computers and using some basic probability theory, these fields have essentially nothing to do with each other.

    • Dima says:

      In this country it is considered acceptable to tell lies, and get away with it (“ты начальник – я дурак, я начальник – ты дурак” is a Russian saying you might know, it is quite applicable to England) My cynical view is that one might see more type theory/category theory sort of jobs in that department soon. Cause, you know, strategic directions blah blah…

  7. Candace G. says:

    Yikes. When I was an undergrad math & comp sci major, combinatorics was required in 2nd year. Yes, it was a while ago – mid 80s – and it was in Canada, not the UK, but still, it was considered fundamental and foundational. I can’t imagine getting a degree in these without combinatorics!

  8. Yiftach Barnea says:

    Peter, what are saying about Trinity college’s decision to pull out of USS and UCU’s decision to boycott them?

  9. Alexander Woo says:

    These days, telling the difference between the sentences “Not all swans are white.” and “All swans are not white.” is considered an unreasonable demand for an undergraduate not at Oxbridge. (To be fair, it may be that this was always an unreasonable demand and we are now just realizing it.) It’s a reasonable corollary to abandon the teaching of any theoretical subjects whatsoever, except at Oxbridge. If your students aren’t capable of learning more than how to switch on the computer, then perhaps the best thing your university can do for your students is indeed teaching them just that and calling it a degree.

    • So can I make a special plea? In the recent Guardian league table, St Andrews came second, ahead of Oxford, so maybe we can have special dispensation to continue teaching stuff like the Handshaking Lemma?

    • Yiftach Barnea says:

      I disagree, yes there are a lot of students that struggle with proofs. However, that does not mean all of them are like this. You can still find students outside Oxbridge that are capable of learning proofs and enjoy it. Some even continue into very good PhDs. I think the real challenge is how to teach a wide spectrum of abilities.

    • Will says:

      Not all that glitters is gold.

      • Yiftach Barnea says:

        Sorry I didn’t understand, what are you saying?

      • Will says:

        Sorry for the oblique comment. I am in basic agreement with the views about teaching you expressed above. My point was that I don’t think confusion about Alexander Woo’s pair of sentences indicates much about mathematical ability. I was trying, ineptly, to illustrate the the ambiguity of natural language by slightly mangling the familiar English aphorism “All that glitters is not gold”, which comes from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. I think the ambiguity of language is an obstacle for many mathematics students, even for some with a real passion for the subject. The ability to decipher ambiguous utterances and to guess an instructor’s intended meaning is clearly useful, but I don’t think we want to create an unnecessary barrier to entry for students in whom such an ability is not highly developed. If the second of Alexander’s two sentences were changed to “All swans are non-white”, I think most everyone would get the point.

    • Dima says:

      A considerable percentage of Oxbridge students are merely coached to get into the system in their private schools, they are not better than these who did not make it for whatever irrelevant to their abilities reasons. A bunch of students I was teaching in a then new maths department in a SE Asia university were so good that several made into PhD programs in places like Cornell and UCLA. I have only once came across a student of similar ability in my 5 years of toiling as a stipendiary lecturer in a mid-league Oxford college.

      • I definitely agree – we shouldn’t perpetuate the myths of Oxbridge brilliance. Sure, on average the students are quite good, but they have often been very fortunate, with far more training than others, and often have not had the advantages that real struggle can bring to one’s mathematical and personal abilities. Excellent students can exist in all sorts of circumstances – it is just unfortunate that some of these “prestigious” places don’t spend much time bringing students into excellence, who were not already somewhat gifted or trained to do well in such circumstances.

        I suspect we may have had some similar experiences at a “mid-league Oxford college” too Dima. 😉

  10. I have just learned that the University have decided to transfer the combinatorialists in the Computer and Information Science department to the Mathematics department. I guess this is the best that could be expected in the circumstances.
    I have no idea whether the petition had any influence on this decision. I did not even receive a formal acknowledgement from anyone at the University. So who knows?

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